Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Design Thinking in the Classroom

In a recent blog, we wrote about how the maker culture is invading K-12 classrooms, and how design thinking is transforming traditional learning. We looked at how to get your kids making, creating, and designing. In today's post we are going to dig a little deeper into the “design thinking” buzzword and unpack what the integration of design thinking means for 21st century teachers, students, and schools.

Design thinking is a structured, but creative, approach to generating, rethinking, and tangible problem solving. It involves taking real-world problems and using research, analysis, and brainstorming to come up with solutions (Gerstein, 2013). Students then physically build and test their ideas through experimentation and product refinement.

Design thinking is supposed to be a messy, dynamic, and collaborative problem solving approach to real world problems. So, as students walk through each stage of the design process, it is important they remain flexible and return to previous steps if need be. Progression through the design process is not intended to be linear; it is fluid and creative in nature. However, a brief description of what occurs in the classroom during each step of the process is as follows:

1. Discovery
Students will discover a challenge or problem, and work to develop a clear understanding of the problem. They should research the problem and gather as much information as they can.

Example: College student is a very active marathon runner who loves to move around. She finds it very difficult to stay still in her chair but is expected to sit through a 75 minute math class without standing up.

2. Interpretation
Students will work to clearly articulate the problem they want to solve and why it is important to solve it. During this process students may need to go back and redefine the problem several times to further narrow the scope of their project.

Example: The student enjoys movement and needs to be able to move quietly, from a seated position, without distracting others in the classroom.

3. Ideation
Students will begin to brainstorm and come up with solutions for the problem.

  • The student could tap her feet under her desk (no, because that would distract others)
  • The student could roll a wooden dowel under her feet (no, because the floor is hardwood and it would make a loud noise)
  • The student could tie bouncy elastics to the bottom of her chair to press her feet on during the lesson.

4. Experimentation

Students will select what they think to be the best solution and begin to build a porotype of their solution. They will then test their ideas.

Example: Find a chair and test out different widths and types of elastics. Determine if there is any noise made or if other students are distracted by the noise made. Make sure that the elastics don’t break and are easily added and removed before and after class.

5. Evolution
Students will begin to evolve their ideas and refine what needs to be reworked. This may call for students to return back to the discovery, interpretation, or ideation steps of the design process.

Design thinking is an exciting concept, but it can be daunting to figure out how to integrate these ideals into your classroom routines. Thankfully, there are several resources out there to support interested educators who wanted inspire their kids to think, create, and experiment. Design Thinking for Educators is a great resource for educators who want to learn more.

Their website houses a plethora of videos that discuss the intricacies and rationale behind design thinking, while modeling real world examples of how the ideas are played out in a classroom. Design Thinking for Educators also has a downloadable toolkit to get you started in your design journey. Alternatively, Stanford’s School of Education has a wiki that outlines some great design thinking projects and challenges that innovative educators could attempt with their students.

Design thinking is a fascinating novel way to think about and engage students in the learning process. It gives the students autonomy over their learning, and teaches them how to find answers to their own problems through experimentation and research. Happy designing!

Gerstein, J. (2013, March 11). "Hacking the classroom: Beyond Design Thinking." Retrieved from

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